Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Search for General Tso: the Story of American Chinese Food and Its Crispy Chicken
never lost a battle, but he has been immortalized with a dish that would
probably not appeal to his palate. Reportedly, Zuo Zongtang, a.k.a. General
Tso, really did like chicken, but the Americanized sauce of the recipe bearing
his name would be far too sweet for the ardent Chinese nationalist. While nobody
recognizes the American Chinese take-out staple in his home province of Hunan,
it is a different story in Taipei. Ian Cheney chronicles the recipe’s journey
and the Chinese-American restaurants that serve it in The Search for General Tso (trailer here) which opens this
Friday in New York.
the real General Tso was a counter-revolutionary, who successfully put down the
crypto-Christian millennial Taiping Rebellion that would later be invoked by
both Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao. He was also dead-set against western influence in
China. So how did his namesake chicken conquer the American takeout market? It
is a complicated story, but Cheney conclusively follows a trail running
directly through New York back to Taiwan. As a bonus, he also reveals the origins
of cashew chicken in the unlikely city of Springfield, Missouri.
Search is about the Qing Dynasty
General and the crispy chicken he never knew, but it is really more about the
Chinese-American immigrant experience and the entrepreneurial drive that has
produced thousands of restaurants throughout America. It was never easy,
especially when Nativist laws were still in force during the late Nineteenth
and early Twentieth Centuries. Yet, with the support of their families and
cooperative neighborhood associations, new arrivals were able to scratch out a
living in the restaurant sector, often relocating to towns with nearly no
Chinese-American communities to speak of (and therefore no competition).
Indeed, Americanized dishes like Chop Suey and General Tso’s Chicken reflect an
impulse to assimilate and cater to their regional customers.
big picture is rather inspiring, despite plenty of ugly episodes in places like
Springfield, before the locals were won over by cashew chicken. In fact, much
of the film could be considered a celebration of hard work and family,
especially when it interviews people like Philip Chiang, founder of P.F. Chang’s,
who started in the business working in his mother’s ambitiously upscale
Search is also unusually stylish for
a documentary, incorporating Sharon Shattuck’s lively animated transitions and
plenty of glorious food shots. If you are looking for foodie indulgence, Cheney
delivers. The Szechuan Alligator at Trey Yuen’s in Louisiana looks and sounds
particularly tempting. There is just no way viewers will not have Chinese for
dinner after watching the film.
You sort of expect the search for General Tso to
be Quixotic, but Cheney answers all his questions, establishing a definitive
history of the crispy chicken menu item. Yet, the film covers much more
cultural history, without getting hopelessly bogged down in identity politics.
Smart, well balanced, and briskly paced, The
Search for General Tso is highly recommended for culinary minded audiences
when it opens this Friday (1/2) in New York at the IFC Center.
Labels: Documentary, General Tso's Chicken